The Life and Times of Lucille Ball

I love Lucy!

No, that wasn’t just a ploy to make a cheap pun. As a young boy, I had a handful of idols that I aspired to model myself after. One was Bette Davis. Another was Dracula (I was a weird kid). But Lucille Ball was everything I wanted to be in terms of a funny person as well as a business person.

Lucille Ball

She was a self made woman who starred in her self-produced shows  I Love Lucy, The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, and Life with Lucy. Hell, she produced classic televisions shows like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. That’s right, all the Trekkies in the world have this funny lady to thank for the likes of Shatner and Nimoy.

That’s why I wanted to use this time to exam her illustrious career. Specifically, I want to take a look at her self-produced sitcoms and how their success reflected on her life, and the industry as a whole. Because, while I may love Lucy, I will admit that Ms. Ball did in fact drop the Ball at some points throughout her celebrated career.

I Love Lucy & The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour

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I Love Lucy was an American television sitcom starring Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley.The black-and-white series originally ran from October 15, 1951, to May 6, 1957, on CBS. After the series ended in 1957, however, a modified version continued for three more seasons with 13 one-hour specials; it ran from 1957 to 1960.It was first known as The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show and later in reruns as The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour.

The premise is as follows: “Originally set in an apartment building in New York City, I Love Lucy centers on Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and her singer/bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), along with their best friends and landlords Fred Mertz (William Frawley) and Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance). During the second season, Lucy and Ricky have a son named Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (“Little Ricky”), whose birth was timed to coincide with Ball’s real-life delivery of her son Desi Arnaz Jr.”

I Love Lucy was a very groundbreaking. For one thing this was the first show to have an interracial couple at the core of the cast, with Ball being a Caucasian female and Arnez being a Cuban male. Also, due to Ball’s real life pregnancy, the show also had the first pregnant character in television history, though standards limited the vocabulary and terminology to “Expectin”.

What become apparent from the get go was the Ball had a great talent in physical comedy. However, because she was a reported perfectionist, she would practice scenes with a kind of Kubrick-like madness that came from not only being a star performer, but also from being a major driving force behind the scenes.

This is most apparent in what is, without a doubt, one of the most influential comedic scenes in entertainment history. I’m, of course, talking about the famous candy scene. C’mon, you know the one.

And then came the big change in format. Desi Arnez decided to change things up a bit, worried that audiences would grow tired of the same thirty minute time frame filled with similar content (more on that later). This is what brought in The  Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The show kept the same plot of its predecessor, but only kept the four main cast members.

The whole concept went like this: “During the final season of I Love Lucy (episode 14), the Ricardos, soon followed by the Mertzes, moved to Westport, Connecticut, reflecting the growth of the suburbs throughout America during the 1950s. Ricky commuted into New York City where he now owned The Babalu Club. A key part of the program’s format was guest stars in each episode, including Ann Sothern; Rudy Vallee; Tallulah Bankhead; Fred MacMurray and June Haver; Betty Grable and Harry James; Fernando Lamas; Maurice Chevalier; Danny Thomas and his Make Room for Daddy co-stars; Red Skelton; Paul Douglas; Ida Lupino and Howard Duff; Milton Berle; Bob Cummings; and, in the final episode, “Lucy Meets the Moustache”, Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams.”

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Lucy would spend most of her time interacting with the celebrity guest stars, but Ricky, her husband, did not seem to interact with her as much as before. The reason behind this was the real-life marital problems of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. The chemistry between them was toxic, and this reflected in audiences turning away and the cast members’ performances dipping in quality. Fights between them got so bad that in one episode, Ball performed red eyed and teary do to an extremely harsh argument with her husband just minutes before. By the time this series ended, both Arnez and Ball communicated through surrgates. Shortly after this, Lucille Ball filed for divorce.

A lot of people don’t really remember this show fondly, myself included. Personally, I see it as a pale comparison to I Love Lucy, one that couldn’t capture the magic and fun of its sister series. Many also see it as a main factor in the disintegration of a much beloved Hollywood marriage. With these two disappointing aspects thrown at her at once, you think Lucille Ball would be down for the count. Many people were wonderfully surprised.

The Lucy Show

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2 years after what could have been the end of her popular career, Lucille Ball returned to television with her (technically) second sitcom, The Lucy Show. This came after several of Desilu Studios (the production company started by Ball and Arnez) had several of their shows cancelled. Arnez, who was president of the company, offered Ball a chance to return to TV, in hopes that this would rejuvenate the company. Ball agreed, and once again partnered with Vivian Vance and the I Love Lucy writers to create another sitcom. In 1962, The Lucy Show was official.

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Premise:T he show began with Lucille Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children, Chris (Candy Moore) and Jerry (Jimmy Garrett), living in the fictional town of Danfield, New York, sharing her home with divorced friend Vivian Bagley (Vance) and her son, Sherman (Ralph Hart).

That’s right, this show had the first ever divorced character on television.

The Lucy Show was a hit. While the cast lineup was not the most stable (Vance and her character’s family left the show at season 3 and Moore’s character was written out), the program made it 6 seasons and 156 episodes.

What really shines here though is a case of “writing what you know”. At this point in her life, Ball was a single mother of one boy and one girl. Much like her character was struggling without her husband, Ball was struggling with her after TV career. Yes, she had hits in film, but she was always associated with Lucy Ricardo, which was also heavily based on Ball (at the time). All they really had to do was upgrade the character profile. An act that gave Ball consecutive Emmy wins.

After six years, it was Ball herself the put an end to the show. While she wanted to continue in television, but she demanded that she work with her children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr., a request that was met with agreement from both the network and her family members. This brought us to…

… Dramatic pausing…

Here’s Lucy

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This show featured Ball as Lucy Carter, a widowed  mother raising her  two children (played by her real life children) while simultaneously working as  a career woman in California.

Unlike most shows of the time, Here’s Lucy performed in front of a live studio audience, since Lucille Ball performed better when she had an audience to feed off of. Her children also were heavily interviewed by the writers in an attempt to address how real teenagers acted. Once again, aspect of “write what you know” played a big part

However, compared the other 2 (3?) programs, this one is just plain forgotten. Despite the unique, true to life family dynamic that was brought in to the production, Here’s Lucy lacked any real lasting power. A statement that many wished applied to the next program on the list.

Life with Lucy

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This was the final television program headlined by Lucille Ball. While many great stars try to go out with a bang, many saw this as Ball attempting to go out with a flop.

The Premise: Ball played a widowed grandmother who had inherited her husband’s half-interest in a hardware store in South Pasadena, California, the other half being owned by his partner, widower Curtis McGibbon (played by Gale Gordon). Lucy’s character insisted on “helping” in the store, even though when her husband was alive she had taken no part in the business and hence knew nothing about it. The unlikely partners were also in-laws, her daughter being married to his son, and all of them, along with their young grandchildren, lived together.

This show had a total of 14 episodes. Aft 6 of them, Life with Lucy was cancelled. Out of the remaining episodes, 5 were never aired and 1 was only written and never produced.

What went wrong. Simple. Remember the phrase that I have been tossing around throughout this post; write what you know? Well that there sums up the problem. Like most shows, Ball had most of the creative control behind the production. Who followed her? Why the same production and writing team behind I Love Lucy. That’s over a thirty year difference between the shows. At that point in history, the same kind of humor that worked so well in the Ball’s first show did not translate well to the new audience environment. It was at this time in history where we realize that Desi Arnez was right. America, no matter how much they adored Lucy, would not be entertained by the same thing over and over again.

Final Thoughts.

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On April 26, 1989, Lucille Ball died due to hear troubles.She was 77 years old.

Despite the slight embarrassment that came with her final television venture, Ball left behind a grand legacy in her wake. Throughout her career, she won four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Furthermore, she has become a household name years after the end of her shows and her life.

I love Lucy. That is a statement I dare anyone to contest.

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